From "Zoolander" to the Boom Boom Room: 10 Years of Roman and Williams Designs

Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch in their living room
(Courtesy of Roman and Williams/Antoine Bootz)

While the names Stephen Alesch and Robin Standefer may not immediately ring a bell for some, many of their now-iconic works would likely be immediately recognizable. Take, for example, the top of the scandal-baiting Standard Hotel. When he commissioned them, Hotelier extraordinaire Andre Balazs asked the husband-and-wife duo to design the 18th floor to “feel like the inside of a Bentley.” What they did was take inspiration from a jar of honey and spin it into a gold; one simple glass pot informed the glowing centerpiece that blooms at the center of the now-iconic Boom Boom Room.

Alesch and Standefer are the principals of a NoHo-based architecture firm Roman and Williams (named in honor of their maternal grandfathers). The diversity of their projects ranges from interiors for hotel magnates to home design for movie stars to corporate interior design for Facebook, but a common aesthetic thread runs through all of their projects: Part industrial, part elegant, their work exudes an inherent sex appeal and warmth that is partially due to the pair’s use of natural materials like wood, gold, and leather. 

They met in ’90s Hollywood as set designers, and it was a job styling the modernist bohemian-chic abode for the title character of Ben Stiller’s 2001 supermodel spoof “Zoolander” that led them into designing four of Stiller’s real-life residences. As the reputation of their cinematic touch grew, so too did their client list. They became the go-to firm for hip Manhattan hang-outs like the Standard, the Ace Hotel, and the John Dory Oyster Bar. Eschewing bright colors, synthetics, or other ephemeral trends, none of these spaces could be described as loud — instead they command attention by emanating a sumptuous warmth. They’ve also applied their craft to product design, having created vintage-looking metal handles and faucets for bath fixture manufacturer Waterworks.

Most recently, Roman and Williams constructed the mess hall of the Menlo Park Facebook campus. In stark contrast to typically lifeless office cafeterias, staffers of the social media giant now eat within what looks like a home dining room that just happens to serve 6,000 employees.

To celebrate the firm’s 10th anniversary, Alesch and Stander released “Things We Made,” a frankly titled, weighty tome that surveys the course of their career. By email, they wrote to us to discuss how far their firm had come and where it’s headed.

Happy Birthday! As you celebrate your 10th anniversary this year, can you speak to how a firm evolves over the course of a decade?

With age comes a bit of respect. We have always had to fight for what we believe in, but getting our way has become a bit easier. We are not the new kids on the block anymore so we don’t always have to explain ourselves. Clients now mostly know what to expect when they come to us. It’s nice.

Your work includes vastly ranging projects, from the set of “Zoolander” to the Boom Boom Room. How did your design processes differ between the two? (Were mood boards involved? What was on them?) How do you tailor yourself to such different clients, and is there anyone you would turn down?

We have always very intentionally tried to maintain a very wide range in the type of work we do. And, we are more interested in narrative, context and narrative than we are in a particular design brief.  Whether for Hansel’s loft in “Zoolander,” or for the Boom Boom Room, we want to evoke emotions and experience. Our work is more about an ethos, than a style. We are never looking to make a “design statement.”

In terms of clients, we embrace the brave, so we sometimes turn down those who are overly cautious. People who are too careful do not make the best clients for us.

And which, in your opinion, is the sexier setting?

Tie! That one goes into overtime. There is no way to tell. It completely depends who is in those spaces.  It is fair to say that we do not like asexual, prudish things.

Aside from a few very big projects in California, for the most part you’ve stuck to New York. Is there something about this city that resonates better with your vision than anywhere else?

We don’t only operate on one frequency – as you’ve clearly picked up from your questions – and New York, to us, is a collision of frequencies. Uptown/downtown, rich/poor – NY feels like democracy in action to us. We like how that is reflected in our work, that there are still people who have dinner at the Breslin and then go to the Boom Boom Room for drinks. There is a wonderful tension in that.

But it is also important to mention that we are starting to do a lot more work internationally – in Europe, India, South America and Asia.

Speaking of California, the Facebook cafeteria is surprisingly warm and inviting. The use of natural materials like wood and metal is so unlike what you would expect from such a tech-oriented company. How did you come to that design? What role did they play in steering its aesthetic?

The Facebook team shared our interest in all things analog. They love the Ace Hotel. We actually ran into them there, and they recognized us from some of the press. We started talking and they hired us because they were hoping to get some of that same mojo in their space.

They were not at all interested in the very slick, all-white aesthetic that we’ve come to associate with technology. They are also very “anti-design” – just like we are. They were afraid to hire a designer because they didn’t want something that felt too designed, academic or trendy. They don’t want to live in the machine – and wanted an experience that was warm and casual – a bit deconstructed, though not in the sense of the word as it is used in archi-speak. They just wanted something spontaneous.

The cover of the book is provacatively labeled “Part One.” What can we look forward to from you in the future?

MORE, MORE, MORE! More projects, more products, more of everything. We aren’t happy unless we are making things. 

“Things We Made” is available at Rizzoli. To see pages from Roman and Williams’ new book, click the slideshow